Scuderia Ferrari has already made the headlines at today’s Indian GP; not because of the titanic battle between Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and the Italian team’s matador, Fernando Alonso – but instead for carrying the Italian Navy’s emblem on both of its cars during this weekend’s Grand Prix.
Ferrari claim it was never intended as a political gesture (which is strictly forbidden by the FIA), and India’s Federation of Motor Sport Clubs chief, Vicky Chandhok, has graciously accepted Ferrari’s explanation. But there could be troubled times ahead for the entire Maranello operation as a wave of condemnation builds throughout the Asian continent.
Like many news stories, there are more than two sides to this affair: The background stems from the killing in February of two Indian fishermen by members of the Italian Navy’s vessel protection squad. Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone were serving as a part of a detachment aboard the Enrica Lexie, an Italian oil tanker crossing the Arabian Sea.
The two marines claim that they believed the fishermen to be pirates and opened fire, killing both. They were subsequently arrested by the Indian authorities, detained and charged with murder. In June, the pair were granted bail whilst awaiting trial but were told that they must remain in India.
The fallout between the two nations happened almost as soon as the incident unfurled; Italy insisting that it occurred in international waters (thereby meaning that the servicemen should fall under their jurisdiction), India citing national law and refusing to accede to Rome’s demands.
Ever since, tensions, accusations and counter-accusations have been rife: And then the Formula One circus rolled into town.
If last year’s inaugural Indian Grand Prix is anything to go by, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s media would be focusing their attention on the spectacle in New Delhi and the nearby Buddh International Circuit; Ferrari, it appears, had other ideas.
By placing the Italian naval emblem on the cars of both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, they’ve sparked yet more controversy and by persisting in maintaining their position, are widely seen as politicising the event.
As indicated in the opening lines, The FMSCI has accepted the assurance of Stefano Domenicali, Ferrari’s Team Principal, that the carrying of the emblems is simply meant as a gesture of admiration for a much loved institution. Mr Chandhok, it would appear, is perhaps somewhat more magnanimous than he might be.
I consider myself a patriot and I greatly admire our own armed services, but there is a time and place for such demonstrations of affection, and this weekend in northern India is not it. But whilst Ferrari, or their masters at Fiat, seemingly do not understand that the world of Formula 1 is no longer Eurocentric, the same, I am sure, cannot be said for their commercial partners.
Shell, for instance, is the only worldwide major petroleum supplier to hold a retail fuel licence in India. They’re also currently embarking on a major expansion drive into India’s booming aviation sector and importantly, require co-operation from a range of state and national bodies as it continues to pursue gas exploration and storage solutions.
Then there’s Kaspersky, the world’s largest privately owned anti-malware business. Sales growth in India of desktop and laptop computers is still rising rapidly, especially with personal users from semi-urban areas. Kaspersky will be keen to develop their presence in this market.
And then there is Ferrari’s day job to consider, that of selling cars. Only last year, CEO Amedeo Felisa was in India to celebrate the opening of the prancing horse’s first official dealership in New Delhi, where messages of congratulations from Messrs Alonso and Massa were relayed via video link to the assembled media and dignitaries.
Selling cars built in Europe into India is a costly exercise, and although the Indian luxury car market is currently estimated to only be around 25,000 units pa (of which Ferrari are targeting just 100 sales), it is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 25 per cent for the next eight years, meaning that by 2020, sales volumes for premium brands should total something near 150,000 units per annum.
For a manufacturer that currently only makes around 7,000 cars each year, this could clearly place India close to China as one of Ferrari’s key future export markets.
Tragedy and conflict are not uncommon across India, but they are more often associated with regional events and soon become assimilated into everyday life. The same, however, cannot be said when an agitator is perceived to arrogantly value western life above that of others.
So whatever good intentions Ferrari might have in flying their Navy’s flag, they need to understand that their partners will be more concerned with preserving revenues and building market share than fighting cause célèbre. And of course, those tasked by Maranello with selling cars, not racing them, might just be thinking this too.